Wins are good, even when they aren’t perfect. Iowa State had perfect moments, a few gaffes, and a little luck on their side. Ultimately, they were not overmatched against Texas as they were in 2018 and the kickers came to play. That was my largest takeaway from the game.
If you have not listened to the Football and Random Things podcast with Jared Stansbury and Jeff Woody, then I highly recommend you do. The hour is worth the investment as they cover just about all of the interesting things presented in this game with great insight. I was tempted to take a week off, but there are a few things I have been waiting to discuss that warrant an addition to the Texas game aftermath.
Before diving into the football nerdery, I have viewed some consternation over play-calling on both sides of the ball. I at times have criticized play calling, but Saturday was not one of those times in retrospect. The primary complaint was going away from a running game that was working. Oklahoma State and Texas were both hurt by the Iowa State running game early. Both teams adjusted by beginning to run linebackers through the zone blocking gaps in numbers which hit ISU for several losses. At that point, Iowa State became pass-heavy in order to try to avoid being behind the chains in the penultimate moments of the game. That is rational and logical and I don’t really have a criticism of the plays called after the defense made the adjustment.
Some game notes and film clips…
Quick hits will be focused on certain players because there were some interesting and outstanding individual performances on Saturday.
** In the interesting category, and very notable, were the three receptions by Sean Shaw Jr. Mr. Shaw had run essentially two routes in his game time up until Saturday – a post and a deep seam. However, his three receptions on Saturday included crossing routes and digs where he was a big target and very effective. He is every bit of 6’6″ and showed the quickness to run under routes and caught the ball effortlessly. It is clear he has progressed in practice and gained trust as the season has gone on. He will be a prime candidate as an emerging weapon in the balance of the season and for next season.
** Also in the interesting category is Will McDonald. McDonald’s playing time has been increasing in recent weeks. Not at outside linebacker, but in his most comfortable role which is with his hand on the ground as a wide pass rusher. As Jeff Woody and Jared Stansbury point out, the speed he brings to that role has an opportunity to change the game. Saturday, his alignment was of interest as he was in a 9 to wide 9 alignment (well outside the tackle). I noted that when he was in that position the other end was in a 5 head up. Iowa State ordinarily plays both either in the gap or in a 4, inside the tackle. Tech exploited that by pinning the end and running power over the pin. I have been hoping to see an alignment adjust such as this and it was used very effectively on Saturday.
** Lawrence White played inspired football. In order to protect Greg Eisworth, he was asked to play down and take Eisworth’s role in the running game. He did so and played as well as Eisworth usually plays. His aggression and resolve in his attack are worth re-watching the game to enjoy. He was a difference-maker and the defense has a very different day without his outstanding play.
** Enyi Uwazurike played perhaps his best game of the season. Texas was not able to fool him or move him from his position. At times, he created late pressure, but mostly he created push. Along with the next entrant, Enyi was able to get enough push at the line to cause Ehlinger some discomfort and force some quick and inaccurate decisions. That is what the three-man rush is designed to do. It isn’t designed to get pressure, but if it can create a push then sooner-than-expected decisions against an 8 man drop are less successful. Enyi was very solid in his time and created issues for Texas.
** Jamahl Johnson, alongside Enyi, used his lateral quickness and explosiveness to wreak havoc in the middle. His play revealed a special player that I believe has a certain NFL future. He is so unique because he has an explosive power base that makes an interior push almost inevitable, but he couples that with lateral quickness and speed that makes him a factor beyond the tackles on pursuit plays. That was demonstrated on Saturday and was a prime factor in the drives that resulted in punts for Texas.
** Breece Hall has a unique ability to accelerate to top speed in a four-yard window. He uses a hesitation and acceleration style to allow a defender to commit and then explode through or past them. It is really fun to watch. His next step will be avoiding contact a bit and running to green for bigger plays. At the top of an eight-yard or more run, he has a tendency to want to finish the run, which is awesome, but there is some space he misses that could create an even more explosive play and player.
** 2nd and 35 stunk. The last drive of the first half stunk. The skunk in the room was a loose quarters zone that allowed time and space for the Texas offense to operate. There is nothing wrong with the set or the thought behind it. It is an attempt to keep the ball in front and tackle, but the execution was not solid against Oklahoma or Texas. The contact/spacing of the zone concept stretched apart and there was too much space allowed. Against Iowa, Tech, TCU, and Oklahoma State, the concept likely works because there are less true talent options or quarterbacks that have difficulty converting. Against Oklahoma and Texas, the talent ratio is too high at QB and WR to allow them that type of space. Good idea, but probably not appropriate against those teams and ISU paid a price for it.
** The go-ahead score for Texas was a drive that was inevitable. Eventually, Sam Ehlinger was going to be Sam Ehlinger. That drive, converting a 3rd and 5 and 4th and goal was attributable to the considerable talent and grit of the Texas QB. It was going to happen. The excellence of the Iowa State defense only allowed it to happen once.
Fun with Tight Ends
The treasure trove of tight ends on the Iowa State roster provides the ability to create mismatches in both the passing and running game. Iowa State was creative in the use of three and two tight end sets Saturday and it made a difference. Two running plays provide a glimpse into the way the talent was deployed on Saturday.
The three tight ends are lined up to the left side as a wing, slot, and split. This creates a blocking mismatch on the outside and due to the talent of Chase Allen, a second level luxury on the edge. Note that the defensive end rushes for contain. Ordinarily, the tackle will fan out to reach the end and move them out, but ISU leaves the end for the wing to engage and drive out. This then frees the tackle to move directly to the second level linebacker who is overmatched. On the outside, two tight ends athletic enough to block in space, are engaging second and third level fill defenders with a mismatch. If Kolar and Julian Good-Jones get a better lock on their blocks then this play becomes a big gain. But, as it is, it is a first down play.
Note also, that if the end has lined up on the tackle, the tackle would have reached the end and the wing would have released to the linebacker. Either way, the result was likely the same. The problem for a defense is, how do they match the physicality or get an extra defender to disrupt the scheme? It will likely be through a blitzing linebacker or a linebacker shift to the tight end side. Iowa State needs to do a better job of countering that defensive adjustment with action to the isolated backside via naked boot or RPO.
Here is a pull sweep that gains more than 10 yards. Two tight ends are used here. Dylan Soehner is the wing and Chase Allen is split wide. They are the second level lead blockers on the play. The line pulls center and guard around and the tackle fits and locks the end with the pullers cutting in behind him. This creates a wash at the line with a body on a body. Texas adjusts with an overhang safety (what I would do against the wing), but, as mentioned above, ISU releases the wing on the overhang immediately. Soehner then makes the second level defender a third level defender with octopus-like envelopment. Allen attacks inside out to create an alley and just does what he does which is to maximize his contact at every turn.
Iowa State is basically throwing three players through the hole in a lead role, and, if the defense cannot penetrate the three-down blocking lineman, then the alley is created with blocking mismatches and a slippery running back. The Texas defense was well aligned, but the execution coupled with the safety and corner mismatches on the two tight ends makes the play go.
Watch the backside here. There is a numbers advantage on the backside. If Purdy and Hall run speed option with the same line action and Milton in the flat, then it is 3 on 2 with a run/pitch/throw option for Purdy. That is the next evolutionary step for the offense. To take these successful play side concepts and then develop a backside counter. The defensive adjustment is to run the overhang through on the snap with an inside backer. That is what you will see in the second half. Counter it with backside option and RPO concepts and the defense may be forced to play base and contain.
The “0” Blitz
Iowa State, as most teams do, has an issue with the “0” blitz and other man defense schemes. Often, the route concepts are ill-fitted to quickly defeating the press-man coverage. Iowa State figured it out a little bit against Oklahoma by using the swing to Hall to flank the rushers. That was not deployed against Texas and I do not know why as it would have aided the offense inside the opponents 40.
In the clips below, we see two Texas plays that effectively handle the “0” blitz by Iowa State and we see a failure by Iowa State against it. What is revealed is a way for Iowa State to handle this common tactic and why Iowa State does not bring the aggressive scheme very often.
Before I explore the concept here, watch Breece Hall pick up the blitz and tell me you don’t love that guy.
Fourth down so the blitz is tipped by the alignment and the situation. Iowa State tries to beat the man coverage with a pivot route by Jones and a drag by Kolar.
First, the routes should be reversed with the speed receiver trying to run away from the defender and the big body posting up on the pivot. The drag is often used by Iowa State and can be effective so no problem here. Driving off the outside defenders is fundamentally sound. The pivot is a problem because speed and angles are what beat man, not slower cuts that allow defenders to hang tight and read the movement.
Slants are a common “0” blitz beater. If Jones runs a slant trailing Kolar, then there is a big play opportunity. We have seen that route this season. Iowa State beats man with a quick out which creates a sharper and speedier cut at times. But, often ISU will run pivots and comebacks that have a lower probability of beating the overload blitz and man coverage. Teams use the scheme because the offense must beat it quickly (timing) and must create space where none is given (pressure). Therefore, the design must either quickly replace the defenders in the sacrificed space or create a quick chase scenario where the receiver can be led to a catch.
The running back and a tight end are the most commonly used receiving options to beat a blitz of this nature via an automatic route adjustment or a hot call.
Iowa State brings its own “0” blitz. Texas sneaks the RB past the blitz and but for the gnome on the 37-yard line, it makes a big completion and big gain. Note the quick out from the slot on the bottom of the clip.
Iowa State brings another all-out blitz on 3rd and 10. No soft coverage here. Again, Texas pushes the RB past the blitz into the vacated area and delivers a scoring strike. Texas has attacked the vacated zone quickly with a running back who is the closest player to the vacated zone.
I believe this is an auto check for Texas when they read “0” blitz. The slot wide receivers here run the same quick out, also a blitz beater, that was run previously. The wides run the corners deep. The concept expands the gap in the middle and it is up to the QB to deliver the ball to his target in space.
The protection scheme is what allows Texas the ability to weaponize the running back instead of making him primary in the pick-up. Texas slides protection away from the running back who is then responsible to pick up the edge rusher. This creates the space and path to run a jab route or a dart into the vacated zone. If an edge player goes with the back, there is either a sack or a throw to the quick out. Iowa State fans its protection against the blitz which leaves the running back responsible for the A gap on his side and eliminates him as a weapon against the blitz. Texas looks for the uncovered receiver, Iowa State tries to beat coverage quickly.
I prefer the Texas protection and blitz counter scheme to that of Iowa State. They represent two different philosophies of offense. However, teams that attack the uncovered zone are the ones that rarely see a pure “0” blitz. Iowa State sees it regularly and will continue to in its last three games of the season.
QB Run Wrinkle
The following concept appeared in the second half of the Oklahoma game and reappeared versus Texas.
Iowa State slants the front and triggers the OLB off the backside. Basic 3-4 defensive scheme. Except, the DE to the field drops into a tight spy position. The use of the DE end as the spy is what is unique. The trigger pulls the eyes and focus of the line to his side and essentially creates a blind spot that the DE hides in. Note, when the spy begins to pursue, the QB reverses course.
The second wrinkle here is the presence of a second spy. The safety covers the hot zone on the slot but releases the slot to the deep safety when the routes press deep. He then sits as a secondary spy for the late quarterback run. The QB finds run pressure on both sides as neither the safety nor the defensive end is where they are supposed to be. The resulting loss is a reflection of the intelligent use of spies to stop the quarterback run. A similar concept was used using a linebacker and the defensive end in an option position versus Oklahoma. There are still six or seven in coverage, but the play slows down the escape routes for a talented runner like Sam Ehlinger.
This wrinkle in the base scheme allowed Iowa State to slow down Oklahoma and Texas and mitigate a common issue for their base defensive scheme.
Iowa State enters a dangerous game against an unpredictable Kansas team. There is some talent at Kansas and getting to 4 wins would mean a forward step for a program that has been going in circles. There is a lot to play for.
I expect Iowa State will see a healthy pressure package and be tasked with beating multiple blitzes and man coverage. Heavy reliance on the run game including Johnnie Lang should be warranted. The defense will have to pay close attention to Pooka Williams, but be ready for a barrage of deep shots. Very few have succeeded in throwing deep on Iowa State, however, very few have tried. There is room over the top against Iowa State’s aggressive corners. A plan that has nothing to lose is a dangerous plan to face.
I am expecting a tougher than expected game, but a win based on the depth of Iowa State. Iowa State needs to strike early and close the door with a complete effort. A complete game is lacking in this season with the exception of perhaps TCU. There remains an opportunity to tie the school record for most wins in a season and that begins with Kansas.